Comparing Integrated Components

Decisions about integrated municipal solid waste management (IMSWM) are made every day around the globe. In a perfect world, an organized, formal decision-making matrix would exist, capable of factoring all the relevant issues into the process. This, however, is not the case. Decisions are made on half facts, emotion and - worst of all - politics.

The European Union (EU), for example, has concluded that reclaiming energy by incineration is preferable to landfilling. In making that decision, the EU analyzed several factors, including the social "costs." Afterward, several British university professors concluded that the EU's decision-making process was flawed and biased. Using a different approach, they concluded that landfilling was preferable to incineration. The two conclusions differed primarily due to which factors were scientifically analyzed.

In contrast, here in the colonies, we've embraced the "last voice heard" approach, in which elected officials make decisions based on the last testimony they heard. We do this for several reasons.

First, it's difficult to determine the boundaries for decision making. For example, should one consider only those energy, economic and environmental factors which begin at the curb and stop at the point of recycling, combustion or landfilling? That's our current approach. In the U.S., a product's life cycle is not yet a factor in IMSWM decisions. Should it be? It's difficult to say because, by nature, this business focuses on the end of product life.

Second, it's impossible to compare the environmental effects of each separate IMSWM component. The EU/UK argument demonstrates this. In the U.S., regulations of MSW combustion are not based on demonstrated impacts; mainly, they're based on negative public and political views. In other words, the "last voice heard" does not necessarily make fair, logical comparisons. It shouts that incinerators are more evil than fossil fuel power plants. This is not true.

In addition, landfills often are perceived as major groundwater polluters and are, therefore, heavily regulated. Meanwhile, the agricultural industry's impact on ground and surface water quality is not regulated. Again, the public and political perception is that landfills and trash are evil, but fertilizers are good.

Further, the effects of landfill air emissions have not yet been examined, except those of non-methane organic compounds. Landfill regulations, therefore, are based on the public and political perception that groundwater contamination is the only issue.

Meanwhile, the last major component of the integrated system, recycling, is considered benign, enjoying little or no regulation because data on its environmental effects are limited. In actuality, recycling is not regulated because it has strong public and political support. The belief that recycling is "good" implies that there are no "bad" effects. We don't know if that's true.

Finally, each component's relative costs are argued continually. Recycling's devotees argue about increasing jobs and the overall costs for the production and re-manufacturing cycle. However, comparing recycling to combustion and landfills on that basis is not valid. The rate-payer's cost for integrated MSW management should not include the costs to dig up a mineral and manufacture a product.

Instead, we should compare the real costs from the curb to final disposal or reuse. This rather simple economic analysis is greatly impaired, however, by the poor cost data available. Often, local government bookkeeping is in a shambles, while private sector bookkeeping is a secret. Therefore, a thoughtful economic analysis is limited. We do know that the cost of recycling, combustion and landfilling do not greatly differ within a specific system. The major costs occur in collection and, until we cut those costs, the rest is academic.

What does all of this mean? First, we should ignore the European approach to IMSWM decision making. While we can learn from their technologies, their culture is too different.

Second, we must establish the boundaries for analyzing integrated waste management needs. Until then, we will keep comparing apples to truck axles.

Third, the battle lines between the big money interests for combustion, landfilling and recycling are slowly emerging. Unless local governments maintain control over the basic MSW management decisions as these powers become more defined, both the public and political sectors will become even more confused.

Last, we need real cost numbers for each integrated MSW management component. Without a uniform process for cost accounting, we'll continue to make decisions on the "last voice heard" - which may be the lesser of two evils.